Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Solaris, a novel by the Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, betrays the director’s general disinterest in conventional SF tropes. His film does honour the mind-blowing outlines of Lem’s concept, which deals with a manned mission to investigate a planet-sized extra-terrestrial consciousness. But where Lem speculated about the practical boundaries of human intellect in the shadow of the universe, Tarkovsky opts to explore human feelings of loss and insecurity in the face of mortality. For Lem, the failed Solaris mission is emblematic of the difficulties we humans would have comprehending and communicating with a radically different form of life. For Tarkovsky, the mission re-opens old psychic wounds, flooding us with regret that we weren’t better to the people we loved. “Shame [is] the feeling that will save mankind,” murmurs protagonist Kris Kelvin near the end of the film. In Tarkovsky’s Solaris, we have made contact with the aliens, and they want you to call your mom.

Let’s start at the beginning. In the film’s first scene, Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a psychologist, is walking along the edge of a pond outside his father’s house somewhere on planet Earth. He’s paying a visit to Dad (Nikolai Grinko) before rocketing off to a space station orbiting the conscious planet called Solaris, where, as a minor character explains, “biomagnetic currents” ebb and flow in an ocean that covers the planet’s surface–“a gigantic cerebral system capable of thought processes.” The mission above Solaris is troubled, and the government considers reports of supernatural phenomena from the scientists involved to be unreliable. Kelvin’s observations will decide what happens next. He can recommend that the project be shut down, or that the scientists become more aggressive, even hostile, towards the organism.

Lem’s novel begins aboard the space station, but it’s important to Tarkovsky that Kelvin’s experience in outer space contrasts with the natural environs he leaves behind. And so the opening sequence of Solaris is preternaturally lovely, with water plants and reeds swaying under a flowing current, insects buzzing, birds flapping their wings and calling out. Cinematographer Vadim Yusov catches the greens and yellows you’d expect, but he also gets the hints of purple and lavender on the surface of the water and in the backgrounds as they recede into mist. This idyll is broken with the arrival of Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), a former member of the Solaris crew, who tells Kelvin about an eerie and frightening experience he had after some of his colleagues vanished during an expedition to the planet’s roiling surface. When he pursued the missing scientists, he saw what appeared to be recognizable objects–shrubs, trees, even a human figure–forming from the material that constituted the surface of Solaris.

As you might expect, things get weird when Kelvin actually reaches the space station. He expects to be greeted by the mission’s three remaining scientists, but nobody meets him on arrival. They seem rather preoccupied. One of them, Snaut (Jüri Järvet), has someone living in a hammock in his office. The reclusive Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn) is dealing with what appears to be a manic dwarf acting in the mode of a rebellious teenager. And Kelvin discovers the body of the third researcher, Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan), in cold storage. He’s led to the freezer by a teenager in a tiny blue dress who runs around in the margins of Kelvin’s vision.
These other people on board the space station appear to be creations of Solaris itself, in response to the presence of the scientists. They are representations of humans manifested from information contained in the consciousness of other humans. They aren’t hallucinations, strictly speaking, as others can perceive and interact with them. In a videotaped message, Gibarian theorizes they have something to do with “conscience.” Not long after arriving, Kelvin’s own Solaris-summoned guest arrives in his living quarters. She is Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), his ex-wife, who committed suicide years before. Kelvin’s initial response to her presence is decisive and shocking: he blasts her into space. But, he soon learns, these visitors aren’t so easily disposed of.

Solaris is often characterized as a Soviet response to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it may be true that Tarkovsky saw an opportunity as heady science-fiction films came into vogue. The SF trappings gave him a chance to distance his story from contemporary politics–which he probably hoped would help him avoid a censorious response to perceived religious themes. He had no particular love for the Kubrick film, however, and there’s an urgency to Solaris that isn’t present in the cooler, more expansive 2001. I’ve always thought of Solaris as an existential horror movie–the story of a haunted spaceship. It has as much in common with The Shining as it does with 2001.

The materialization of Hari and the others raises questions about the intentions of Solaris itself. Is it pulling human figures from the minds of the scientists without recognizing their special meanings? Or does the planet understand enough about human consciousness to realize that it’s dredging up exactly the parts of their pasts that cause them anguish? Is it trying to give them pleasure by returning to them something they’ve lost? Or is it trying to hurt them in an act of self-defense? In the language of science-fiction, these guests are simulacra. In the plainer language of the cinema, they’re phantoms–unquiet ghosts whose purpose is to stalk the guilty, reminding them of their transgressions. That’s where Tarkovsky locates the film’s compelling moral dimension. Confronted with a being, even a frightening one, who isn’t human, exactly, but has the gift of sentience nonetheless, is one obliged to behave with kindness? Does one have a responsibility to set them at ease? Is it defensible to leave such a kindred spirit lost and lonely, perhaps for the remainder of eternity?

The Christian undertones aren’t overt, but they’re there. Less than ten minutes into the film, Kelvin is washing his hands and already I’m thinking of Pontius Pilate. More than two hours later, there’s a harrowing resurrection scene that counts for me as one of the most unforgettable passages in all of cinema. (Bondarchuk, looking wise and sad beyond her years, blows your house down.) Kelvin tries to deal with his demons by himself, though absolution proves elusive. When his mother comes to him, in a fever dream, to wash the grime from his forearms, he realizes it’s only through forgiveness that we find comfort.

Solaris has a reputation for headiness and pretension, yet I’ve always found it riveting from start to finish. While some of the visual-effects work is obviously dated, the planetary surface, always in motion, is mesmerizing. (Combined with an earlier zoom in on a teacup left out in the rain, I wonder if Tarkovsky could possibly be giving a shout-out to Godard and his famous universe-in-a-coffee-cup shot from 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her.) The details of the story are not always clear. Does the narrative contradict itself? Fine, it contradicts itself. That, too, is part of the experience: everything you know is wrong.

Even the more indulgent scenes are gorgeously photographed, and the leisurely stuff is leavened by moments of weirdness I find immensely satisfying. For instance, I’m delighted by the suggestion that, although it has a brain the size of a planet, the film’s alien intelligence tends to screw up the little things. (It clothes Hari in a dress that can’t be unlaced and, in the picture’s final moments, summons an indoor rainstorm.) I cackle inwardly at the single, split-second appearance of that damned dwarf, who is neither seen nor mentioned again. I adore the requisite anti-gravity sequence that Tarkovsky imbues with a sense of something like romance. And, for some reason, Snaut makes me laugh out loud with the sad-faced delivery of his best line: “What a ghastly sight. I can never get used to all these resurrections.”

What I mean to say is that Solaris is livelier and more playful than its forbidding reputation as a heavy-duty Euro think-piece suggests. At the same time, I don’t think it places Solaris very far outside mainstream science-fiction tradition to say that, for Tarkovsky, outer space is nothing more than a metaphor through which he can access and address inner space. (As Neil Gaiman observed in his script for a recent episode of Doctor Who, humans, like the TARDIS, are much bigger on the inside.) The final scene of Solaris is a disturbing gotcha for the ages–the meditative, arthouse equivalent of that hand thrusting out of the grave at the end of Carrie–and it raises genuinely disturbing questions about the very nature of existence.

They are timeless questions. In Hollywood, Christopher Nolan has been dealing with ideas about simulacra, memory, and human psychology in films as disparate as Memento, The Prestige, and Inception. More to the point, especially in the work of someone as spiritual as Tarkovsky, the inability of humans to communicate meaningfully with a planetary consciousness resonates in religious terms with the silence of God, that inexorable condition that gives faith its discipline. That brand of faith has inspired filmmakers in a line that leads from Dreyer and Bergman to Bresson and Terrence Malick. Christians through the ages have found some comfort even in God’s silence, but what Kris Kelvin discovers as he approaches death is a more discomfiting thing. He’s receiving transmissions from a God who doesn’t speak the human language. At the end of Solaris, Kelvin seems to have arrived in his afterlife. Whether he is in Heaven or Hell is left for the viewer to decide.

If you’re going to grapple with Solaris, best to do it with this new Blu-ray edition from Criterion. Though lavish by Soviet filmmaking standards, the production was fairly stretched for cash and shot using multiple film stocks of varying quality for different scenes. (Sometimes the use of monochrome film seems to imply a subjective dream sequence, and sometimes it seems positively random.) Colours are rich and saturated and feel true to the original intent. The image, scanned from a 35mm low-contrast print a single generation off the camera negative, is far from perfect, with occasional missing frames creating tiny jumps in the picture and light vertical scratches and other print damage routinely visible against the background. Criterion says the source material was digitally cleaned by hand as well as processed with an automated noise-reduction system, so the remaining imperfections testify to colorist Joe Gawler’s respectfully light fingers on the controls–you can’t dial out film grain and dirt particles without decimating the image at the same time, and a heavy hand has ruined more than a few Blu-ray transfers. (DP Yusov gets a “special thanks” in the disc credits, so one suspects he had some input as well.) Even if this disc isn’t exactly what the kids call “reference quality,” I can remember seeing Solaris in 35mm on the first release of its full-length version in 1990 or 1991, and Criterion certainly gets you most of the way there. Rendering Tarkovsky’s vision and Yusov’s anamorphic 35mm camerawork with the luminous clarity they deserve, it’s a lovely transfer.

The audio represents a manually noise-reduced 24-bit remaster from an optical soundtrack–probably as good as Solaris is ever going to sound. Dialogue is quite clean and clear, considering the film’s provenance, and the sometimes ambient, sometimes harsh and discordant score by Eduard Artemyev holds up OK despite the limitations of the source. It is presented here in uncompressed LPCM mono.

The supplements ported over from Criterion’s previous DVD edition are fairly generous, starting with an audio commentary by Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie, who authored The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue in 1994. Their delivery is a bit dry but informative enough to be worth the sit. I was interested in their theory about the lengthy (and oft-derided) sequence depicting the retired scientist Burton being driven through the streets of contemporary Tokyo, which occupies almost five full minutes of screen time. I always thought Tarkovsky was going commando à la Godard’s Alphaville, deliberately shooting SF in real, unadorned contemporary settings–made somewhat otherworldly by Artemyev’s insistently unnerving sound design–to emphasize the alienating effect of modern life. Petrie claims that Tarkovsky was hoping to shoot at the futuristic World’s Fair that was held in Osaka in 1970 and the required permissions for his travel to Japan weren’t granted in time. Instead, he ended up shooting everyday Tokyo and incorporating that footage into the film, at length, to justify the expense of his trip. (Also, did Tarkovsky have a thing for his own teenaged stepdaughter? Maybe! Johnson and Petrie drop that bomb partway through their yakker without bothering to explain the background behind the allegation.)

Criterion meanwhile provides just over 25 minutes of “deleted and alternate scenes,” most of them extended versions of scenes that already exist in the movie. They include a different, more on-the-nose epigraph that quotes an imagined magazine interview with the film’s protagonist, some extended views of the cloudy mass that is Solaris, and dialogue-heavy moments that don’t necessarily improve the film, but do perhaps offer a more complete view of the messages Tarkovsky was trying to put across.

Also on board are nearly 105 minutes of talking-head interviews in standard def (4×3, pillarboxed). Best of all is the segment with a passionate Natalya Bondarchuk (32 mins.), who expounds with literary clarity on her experience making the film and her professional relationship with Tarkovsky, giving a sense of the tragedy that befell the director in his later years. (Describing the very spiritual Tarkovsky as a fish out of water in Soviet Russia, she says, “We [Russians] were all grave-diggers, and his art was about eternity.”) Less entertaining but even more informative are the sit-downs with cinematographer Vadim Yusov (34 mins.), who discusses the film’s special-effects work in some detail, art director Mikhail Romadin (17 mins.), who recalls Tarkovsky’s response (i.e., “strong negative reaction”) to 2001, and composer Eduard Artemyev (22 mins.), who discusses the conception and development of the film’s subtle but distinctive soundscapes.

Last is a short excerpt (5 mins.) from a Polish television documentary on Stanislaw Lem that’s notable for featuring the author on camera, briefly expressing his disdain for Tarkovsky’s take on his novel. It’s the final piece of a nicely curated supplemental package that focuses cleanly on Solaris alone rather than on Tarkovsky’s career. (For more on Tarkovsky, see Criterion’s fine DVD of Andrei Rublev. (There’s apparently some doubt as to whether Criterion’s 205-minute version of that film exists in elements of sufficient quality to withstand a high-definition release.)) Additionally, Criterion’s usual insert booklet contains liner notes by Phillip Lopate and an account of a set visit by none other than Akira Kurosawa.

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